University of Pittsburgh, Spring Term 1998
Philosophy 0300: Introduction to Ethics
Monday/Wednesday writing recitations
Ben Eggleston, recitation instructor

Paper Assignment no. 4

Write an essay of about 4 pages on the following topic. Your essay should make ample use of the relevant text, not only representing the author’s views accurately, but also citing and interpreting specific passages where appropriate. It should also go into as much depth and detail as an essay of this length can. Finally, your essay should conform to the instructions provided in “Guidelines for Writing a Philosophy Paper.” Your paper will be due at the beginning of your recitation section on Wednesday, April 1.

Two competing tests of the moral permissibility of conduct are Kant’s categorical imperative and the golden rule, understood as “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.” Argue for one of these as more sensible than the other by considering the following situation and answering the questions that follow.

Suppose you are visiting a dying relative in the hospital and you want to shield her, in her last days, from the knowledge that a longtime friend of hers, whom she thinks of as an honest businessman, has been convicted of embezzlement. Suppose that she asks you how this friend is doing and that the only way to shield her from this painful information is to lie to her; and suppose also that if you do lie about this, then she she won’t find out about it.

  1. First, suppose you were to consult the categorical imperative in order to figure out what to do in this case. Explain what the categorical imperative says and explain how the categorical imperative forbids lying in this case. (You may use Kant’s discussions of making a false promise on pp. 402–03, p. 422, and pp. 429–430 for guidance.)
  2. Second, explain how the golden rule would permit lying in this case.
  3. Third, explain why Kant rejects the golden rule as an appropriate test of the moral permissibility of conduct by explaining how the golden rule depends on the agent’s inclinations (wants, desires, etc.) in a way that the categorical imperative does not. To answer this question it may help to explain (a) how Kant understands the connection between morality and happiness or (b) why counsels of prudence are not laws of morality. If you draw on these ideas, you must be explicit about how they help to explain Kant’s rejection of the golden rule.
  4. Finally, argue for the categorical imperative or the golden rule as the more sensible test of the moral permissibility of conduct. Be sure not only to state your verdict but to give reasons for it.